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Ethical Dilemmas: Shattered!

Ethical Dilemmas: Shattered!

Can Jerry demand a refund or does he share responsibility for breaking the glass table?


A hot Shabbat meal and warm, loving atmosphere brought hundreds of university students, families of hospital patients and curious onlookers to Jerry and Lisa Goodman's home in Boston.

Eventually, the Goodmans needed to add an additional table in their dining room to accommodate the growing crowd.

Jerry read online that Mike Gerber was selling a used glass dining room table and matching chairs for $300. Jerry and Lisa drove their van over to Mike's house to view the table. The stunning table seemed like the perfect buy. It was large enough to fit another dozen guests comfortably and Lisa loved the table's style. She thought the chairs were great too.

Before agreeing to buy the set, Jerry asked Mike if the glass was attached to the table. Mike assured him that it was indeed attached. Jerry and Lisa decided to make the purchase, giving Mike three crisp $100 bills.

Jerry and Lisa moved the chairs onto their van parked in Mike's driveway. While Lisa held the door open, Jerry and Mike began carrying the table to the front door with care and precision. As they neared the door, they tilted the table sideways so that it would fit through the door. Suddenly, they felt the weight rapidly shift as the glass top fell off the frame. As it fell, it broke the antique umbrella stand next to the door and then exploded into countless shards on Mike's floor.

Looking over the remains of the table, it was clear that the heavy pane of glass was just resting on four suction cups that attached to the wrought iron frame.

According to Jewish law, what is the status of the sale of the table and chairs? Does Jerry receive a refund? If so, how much?

Does Jerry share responsibility for any of the damage that occurred to the table or the umbrella stand?

The Answer

This case involves the following two laws:

• A consumer may rescind a deal upon finding a blemish in the merchandise purchased (Shulchan Oruch, Choshen Mishpat 232:4).

• One is liable for intentional and unintentional damages exacted on an article belonging to a third party. One is absolved from paying for unintentional and completely unexpected damage he or she causes. (Shulchan Oruch Choshen Mishpat 378:1, Sha"ch 2)

The Table and Chairs

While objectively there is nothing faulty with a glass tabletop detached from its frame, Jerry made it quite clear that he would only agree to purchase a table fastened to the wrought iron frame. Consequently, we deem anything short of that a “blemish” in the merchandise. Although Mike did not delude his customers intentionally, nevertheless, the Goodmans did not receive the merchandise they intended to buy. Even if Jerry only confirmed the attachment of the glass top merely to verify that the table could be turned on its side without consequence, the sale would still be considered void. Since the seller made a factually incorrect statement about the metrics of the item, the sale is invalid even though the misstatement was not in regards to an actual "blemish". [Choshen Mishpat 232:1]. Hence, if they wish, they may rescind the entire deal even if they had already performed a legally binding act of acquisition.

Although Lisa wanted to buy the chairs, it is clear that the table and matching chairs were part of one purchase. Thus, if the Goodmans decide to void the sale, they must return the chairs to Mike.

The Umbrella Stand

A person is responsible for his or her actions. Hence, one is liable for intentional and unintentional damage he or she causes. Nevertheless, one is not responsible to take precautions against a completely unintentional and unexpected damage. Our situation is a case in point. Jerry had no idea that the glass was detached from the frame. There was no way he could have taken precautions against damaging the umbrella stand. Hence, he is absolved from the damages incurred as a result.

In summary, the Goodmans may demand their $300 back, but they must return the chairs. And Jerry is absolved from paying for the damage to the umbrella stand.

Based on a true story: Submitted by Judah Spetner – Cincinnati, OH.

Answered by Rabbi Yitzchak Boehm

Written by: Rabbi Yosef Y. Ettlinger - Executive Director: Fellow-Yesharim Foundation for Ethical Law, Jerusalem, Israel

February 6, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, February 16, 2010 4:01 PM

Response to our respected and beloved visitors

To My Dear Friends, Kudos on your active involvement! Objectively, a pane detached from the frame might not be viewed a blemish worthy of rescinding the deal. Thus, the law would be subjective to local expectations; if not otherwise specified before the sale. In a society in which it is not viewed as a blemish, Jerry would not be trusted to subsequently claim, he considers it a blemish [332:6 ]. Yet, consider 232:1 “A buyer who receives merchandise differing from the seller’s clear specifications, may rescind on the deal.” "A buyer may rely on the seller's specifications. He can expect to receive the exact merchandise specified; otherwise, he may rescind the deal, though the buyer had the ability to check out the details on his own" (Chochmas Shlomo ibid). While "metrics" insinuate measurements, in truth, any pre-spoken details of the merchandise, which were not met, allows Jerry to rescind on the deal. While a compromise like Ali suggests is a viable option; as Jerry bought them as a set, a misrepresentation in one aspect of the merchandise allows him to rescind on the entire deal. Jerry did not receive the merchandise he agreed to buy. Yoni associates our case to 232:5 " A buyer who finds a repairable blemish like shutters or doors removed by burglars, in the home he had purchased, cannot rescind on the sale. Instead, he may force the seller to pay the repair the blemish." Rama (ibid) explains that the detached shutters do not compromise the definition of the item purchased. The buyer requested a home and received a home. Let us consider the association. In our case, there are 3 differences: the damage is irreparable, the details were expressly specified ( 232:1), and the table broke while still belonging to Mike. Concerning, the umbrella stand, SusanE’s raised an additional well taken point. Mike allowed Jerry to tilt the pane, Jerry was not negligent with Mike’s belongings and is not liable. 'Till next time (join our weekly!)

(4) Anonymous, February 11, 2010 6:50 PM

Wrong conclusion I believe

Anyone knows that glass that size is too heavy to permanently affix to anything. It's clear that when the first owner said that it was "attached", meaning the suction cups, he meant as opposed to merely using the weight of the glass to keep the table sturdy. Who could possibly think they could tilt glass that they could see through, and see nothing was permanently holding it together, to such an angle that it would magically defy gravity. So, I think a refund is not in order. It was buyer's negligence that caused the breakage.

(3) Ali, February 11, 2010 8:02 AM

yet another perspective

the $300 was for both the table and chairs. There was a negligent Misrepresentation by Mike pertaining to the attachment of the glass, but the other items purchased were in the expected condition. The chairs and table frame are still good consideration for the value that Jerry and Lisa have given to Mike. Could Mike just pay the damages resulting from the glass breaking, if it were amenable, or take back the table frame and refund the table? Why is rescinding the remedy over damages?

(2) SusanE, February 10, 2010 12:52 AM

Rabbi Boehm is Correct - A Full Refund is in Order.

I agree with the answer from Rabbi Boehm. The buyer of the table is not at fault. Mike, in fact helped to create the damage by helping to tilt the table to pass through the door. That tilting and falling of the glass is what damaged the umbrella stand too. It was an honest mistake when he said the top was attached, but it was Mikes' mistake for the fall of the top and the damage that it caused. ---------------------------- I don't know Jewish law, but my own ethics know that Jerry should receive a full refund.

(1) yoni, February 8, 2010 2:54 PM

a different angle

I would like to argue that your premise is off in this case. Firstly Mike was wrong when he said that the glass was attached when indeed it was not. However Jerry did not ask such a question as a deciding factor in the purchase. Had Mike said it was not attached the functionality of the table would not have changed and jerry would likely have bought it just the same. Of course we would have to ask Jerry this question for a definite answer. Would he have bought it in any case? In this case Jerry did not have to ask Mike anything he could have just lifted the glass to check if it was attached. The fact that he took his word for it is his own decision. You mentioned in the article that there was a factually incorrect statement about the metrics of the item. I don't understand where the metrics of the item is mentioned in the story? This can be compared to the story of the house which is blemished before the completion of the sale. Just as over there we say that it is still called a house so too here it is still called a table and in the worst case can be fixed to attach the glass as was meant. In short Jerry acquired the table and there was nothing wrong with the tables functionality as was anticipated. anything that happened to it after the acquisition is his responsibility.

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